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Founder Spotlight: Empowerly

With a mission to empower students to become the most successful version of themselves, Empowerly gets creative to ensure students are supported during Covid-19

By Ryan Mendoza

In our next “Founder Spotlight” series, we interviewed Empowerly CEO & Founder, Hanmei Wu, about how she found herself in the online college & career counseling industry and how Empowerly evolved to the place it is today.

The Empowerly founding team are UC Berkeley, Princeton, and Stanford graduates who understand first-hand the best approach to — as well as the stress involved in — applying to universities. Through their innovative and personalized approach, Empowerly has created a strong virtual community and grown significantly through referrals from loyal, satisfied customers. Focusing for now on the San Francisco Bay Area to ensure they maintain quality service, they plan to expand to other regions this year. As an online platform coming of age in an increasingly technological world, Empowerly’s potential is perfectly positioned for rocketship growth.

Scrum Ventures invested in Empowerly after first meeting Hanmei through UC Berkeley SkyDeck in 2019 and getting to know the company. We were initially impressed with the traction in terms of both revenue and user base given the fact the business was entirely bootstrapped at that point. The product market fit and ability of the management team to execute were clear. The company also intelligently optimizes a traditionally low-tech service industry, through virtual counseling, counselor/student matching, and unique tools for managing application processes. The ease of use and scalability of their platform has afforded them strong demand from both students and counselors. Furthermore, Empowerly can offer value even after students graduate with career-focused counseling on internships, graduate schools, and first jobs. With a long customer engagement, Empowerly is positioned to fully understand student performance from high school through college and beyond. We’ve been proud to bring Empowerly into the Scrum Venture family and help with their growth.

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What is your background and why did you decide to start Empowerly?

Hanmei Wu (HW): I founded Empowerly because it’s something I wish existed since I was 15 years old. Over the last decade, I applied to dozens of schools and jobs and was often stressed out about the process. I needed advice but I went to a large high school that had 1 counselor for 400 students. When I attended college, the counselor-to-student ratio wasn’t much better.

After college, I joined Teach for America where most of my teaching job actually consisted of counseling students who really needed it. That’s when I realized that even just exposure to personalized college and career guidance could mean the difference between a student dropping out versus pursuing their passions.

Tell us more about Empowerly and how you fit into the broader education/tech landscape? How would you describe the company’s mission?

HW: Our mission is to empower students to be the best version of themselves. Like myself growing up, over 20 million high school students lack counseling. Even when counseling is available, another key element is finding the right match. Empowerly aggregates a diverse group of counselors. Especially today as college admissions become increasingly competitive, many students benefit from a specialized counselor who can guide them to try a hackathon or start a nonprofit for personal growth as well as experiences to add to their resume. Empowerly’s algorithm takes all this into account to discover and strengthen student’s passions, while staying authentic to their dreams and goals.

With Covid-19, what has changed and how are you managing?

HW: No one knew how hard Covid-19 would be, but as things closed down, we worked with our counselors to create scholarships, add online tools, and host webinars on how to handle the situation. We’re even putting together online extracurricular programs that students would normally be doing now if at school. Amid exams and decision letters, the spring semester is a particularly crucial — and stressful — time for college-bound students as is, and Covid-19 has complicated the process. In response, we’ve been seeing increased student engagement this quarter. Starting in April, we are offering free counseling.

We are lucky that as a platform we are able to adapt quickly, while maintaining and even enhancing the quality of our customer experience. Our platform has a marketplace so we are able to launch new options for students. Some counselors have worked with students for years so they want to do whatever they can to keep supporting students towards their goal.

What was your “ah-ha” moment when you realized you wanted to start the company?

HW: We started organically with a small group of counselors, and when students started getting into their first-choice schools, then we knew we were on to something. But the real moment was when we heard how students were raving about their counselors and how they trusted them and saw them as their support system. We grew from referrals and are careful to maintain that connection as the company expands.

Due to scheduled maintenance, one time our portal shut down for several hours on a Saturday, but we received dozens of phone calls and emails from customers worried about when the portal would become live. This experience made us realize exactly how our users would feel if they could no longer use the product.

Another important moment was when we created the Empowerly Score, which is a tool that identifies a student’s strengths and weaknesses to help us provide personalized recommendations to help them grow. Through our platform, we’ve helped everyone from shy students gaining leadership roles in extracurriculars to unfocused students discovering and honing their passions.

What were some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome as a business?

HW: There’s been a lot. As a bootstrapped startup, we almost ran out of money, which is extremely stressful but it forces you to learn how to be capital-efficient. We learned to be data-driven and focus on what works. Earlier on, we thought we should be expanding into other cities to provide access to more students, but the data showed it would be better to focus on the Bay Area and fine-tune our service before expanding too quickly. From the beginning, we also learned the importance of listening closely to candid customer feedback, since our early users have had valuable on-the-ground insight into how we could improve.

What makes Empowerly different from other startups?

HW: Our technology allows us to:

1) optimize a student’s chances of getting accepted to his/her top choice colleges

2) build a diverse, data-driven counselor network so we can match students to their best-fit counselors, enhanced by tools and crowdsourced resources

Compared to other college counseling platforms, we explicitly did not use “Ivy-league” or “college” because we wanted to be more inclusive and reach a variety of students. The best-fit philosophy helps us reach students wherever their starting point is, and grow from there. We’ve created multiple tiers so our services can be more customized to an individual, and while we primarily focus on high schoolers applying to college, our target demographic ranges from 15 to 25 year olds where we can support with job search, interviewing and graduate school.

What one piece of advice would you give to other entrepreneurs looking to get their company off the ground and secure funding?

HW: Have access to advisors and seasoned founders for coaching and brutally honest feedback. Don’t fundraise until you are 100% ready so you don’t use key connections when it’s too early. The process takes time and there are a lot of unknowns. Put the time in to get advice to iterate until you are ready.

On the other hand, everything doesn’t have to be perfect. For example, out of necessity, our first website had to focus on function over form — but it worked for what we needed then. Now we’ve had time to refine the user experience. The lesson is everything doesn’t have to look perfect from the start to achieve quality in the end.

Why did you choose to partner with Scrum Ventures?

HW: Scrum Ventures was the first check we received. They believed in our company and didn’t need to wait for others to join, which was meaningful to me and I’ll never forget that. Scrum has been an incredible resource for Empowerly and their team is very approachable and willing to support in any way possible.

If you are a data-driven Head of Growth person, Empowerly is hiring. If you are a student interested in Empowerly, check out their ToolKit or sign up for a free consultation.

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We are an early stage venture firm. With experience and networks in both Silicon Valley and Japan, we help our portfolio companies achieve global opportunities.